Envisioning Our City’s Future: Creating An Affordable and Sustainable City

Chris Clarke: “I just think that there are potentially really creative ways to harness that resource, to harness the energy, and materials and thoughts, and new pairs of eyeballs that are coming into this area every, every day.” (Photo: Natalie Zuk)

Cindy Bernard: Creating an Affordable and Sustainable City. Chris, would you like to kick that discussion off?

Chris Clarke: Sure. 

It's an interesting topic, because it seems like there are two adjectives that are kind of at odds with each other, you know? You can have a sustainable city, which nobody really knows what sustainable means. I mean, in 1992, there was a UN summit where the word sustainable got used to describe everything from drilling for oil, to composting and small gardens. 

So people have used it to mean whatever they want. But I take it to mean being able to go through life without eating the seed corn; without leaving things worse for your kids and your grandkids. And then affordable. And the image that we're always given is that of jobs versus environment. It's affordability versus ecological sensibility. And there are contexts in which that's a justified sentiment that those two things are in opposition to each other– that you have to pick one or the other. But I think that there are ways that you can approach it as a kind of a win-win, not a zero-sum contest between those two. 

Those two ideas… One, with my training as an ecologist, I tend to think of things as ecosystems. And sometimes that just leads me down rabbit holes, and I wasted an entire day on Wikipedia or something. But sometimes it's actually kind of helpful. 

I think of 29, in particular, along with its sister communities in the Morongo Basin. An ecological viewpoint is really kind of helpful. And I don't mean, ecology in the sense of making sure that Joshua trees are okay, though, I do support that, I mean, ecological in the sense of how does this system work in the context of systems that are nearby, resources that are flowing into the system, what's coming out of the system. 

And if you look at the Morongo Basin, and 29, in an ecological lens, you have a couple of big rivers of resources coming into this ecosystem. You have, for the last 70 years or so, you have the Base that's bringing a steady stream of people in for many months at a time. Sometimes they fall in love with the place and they stay for good. Sometimes they can't wait to get out of here. But they're coming in here regardless. 

And then in the last 15 years, there is a significantly larger river of people that will show up for three days, and expect to have a good time, are willing to spend a bunch of money, and then they leave. And that's a resource flowing into the ecosystem. 

The ecosystems where resources are flowing in can't always handle – a good example is when the first plants evolved to put oxygen into the atmosphere, they almost killed everything on the planet. Because nothing was used to having oxygen in the atmosphere. And slowly things adapted. And now we depend on those plants, right? 

So we have people coming in, from Los Angeles, San Diego, the Bay Area, Vegas – the entire world actually – and coming in and spending time here, spending resources here. And that can be really destructive, it can raise the price of housing to the point where people can't afford to buy a starter home, because all these people that are coming in are staying in Airbnbs and such and that's eating up the housing stock. 

But it can also be a way in which we get new people to come in and want to do good by this place. We can have people coming in and falling in love with the desert, even if they don't know much about it at first. We can have them come in and spend money in existing businesses or in new businesses that are trying to get a foothold.

It really depends on how we approach using this resource that is being given to us – whether we want to draw. I just think that there are potentially really creative ways to harness that resource, to harness the energy, and materials and thoughts, and new pairs of eyeballs that are coming into this area every, every day. When I was working with a parks protection place, I spent some time thinking about if we could reach 1/10 of 1% of the people that visited here and get them to become avid protectors of desert ecosystems, that would be hundreds of new visitor protectors a day. I mean, 1/10 of 1% of 3 million people a year. That's a crowd. And so just changing that argument slightly –  if we have 1/10 of 1% of the people that come to visit, decide that they want to do right by 29, that is a powerful resource that we can be looking at. 

And I think that in there somewhere is the key to having this place be economically viable, and thus affordable for people who want to live here. Or people who don't want to live here, but are being made to by the Department of Defense (laughter). At the same time, we can have that be sustainable. We don't have to have endless strip malls, we don't have to kowtow to the chain restaurant of the moment.  You know, I think there's some potential there. And that's what I'll offer as a way to start up the conversation.

Cindy Bernard: So we're now open to public discussion. Anybody want to kick it off?

TBID Board Member Ashton Ramsey: “We used to have a code that said no drive thus in downtown, and then they changed it to let Starbucks I think we all agree Starbucks was kind of a nice thing to start us off. But then now the doors back open to anything that can pop up there” (Photo: Natalie Zuk)

Ashton Ramsey: Affordable, that's a tough one. Because the better the town is, the more demand there is, and the more unaffordable. So, I think that's something that we have to look at. And I'm not sure exactly how to tackle that. But sustainable, I think it's something that we have to look at. And I think when you mentioned fast food and the things that we don't want, and the strip malls, I think we have to be very proactive in this new plan.

We used to have a code that said no drive thus in downtown, and then they changed it to let Starbucks I think we all agree Starbucks was kind of a nice thing to start us off. But then now the doors back open to anything that can pop up there. And, and I'm pretty sure almost everyone doesn't want that. And if they do, they don't realize how bad – it's killing…like…like, it is bad for them. So sustainable. We need places, of course, that are healthier options for people and are more affordable.

But then the other thing, thinking outside the box, is the one thing that's hurting the town the most in a weird way is the architecture and the design of the houses. Sometimes we just put up these tract housing developments. And when do we do, they last 100 years, you know, and so suddenly you have a nice neighborhood that suddenly is just filled in with these things. And so I've actually talked to Octavius about this out of the box idea, and some others about, maybe there's an architectural review that we could do. Because if we can just have the garage in a different spot, if we could have windows facing views, if we can have a house that's sustainable – that means that people appreciate it, to buy it, to rent it,  to live next door to it forever and ever. That's an awesome neighborhood. If it's a boring tract and someone is just making money, they don't even realize that they would make more money if they designed it better. Thank you guys.

Cindy Bernard: Does anybody want to build on what Ashton said or agree or disagree? 

Octavious Scott: Thank you. One of the things that the city is looking to do is we want to redo our General Plan. And I came to that realization after talking to several members of the community, especially Mr. Ashton Ramsey here.

We haven’t updated our general plan since I believe 2015…

Cindy Bernard: 2012. 

City Councilmember Octavious Scott: “We're going to be looking at how we can start looking at these ideas of how do we develop our neighborhoods in a sustainable way.”

Octavious Scott: Right. And so we need to look at redoing our general plan. It's something that I'm going to be working with, myself and my colleagues on the city council, along with the new city manager. We're going to be looking at how we can start looking at these ideas of how do we develop our neighborhoods in a sustainable way.

I live in what's called Historic Midtown, I call it that, others might. It’s the middle of Twentynine Palms. And I represent the fourth district of Twentynine Palms. And the reason why I say that is my district is the only district that has as many rental properties – more than any other district in the city. Most of our duplexes, fourplexes, apartment buildings – they're located in the center of the city. And  that's all because of our zoning laws. And so we might want to look at our zoning laws when we do our general plan review because maybe there's some other areas of the city that could benefit from other types of housing as well. So I just want to put that out there.

Cindy Bernard: I would add to that, that one of the challenges I think that we've had, from what we've witnessed with the Desert Trumpet writing about the Planning Commission, is that we have a downtown plan. But very often, we have a Planning Commission, I believe, that plays a little bit loose and fast with our plan. And so for instance, Vino brought up at a recent meeting, that Starbucks was put in without the required landscaping buffers that it should have had, because they really wanted the Starbucks and the city was fearful that if they put requirements on them, that the Starbucks might go away. 

But I think the challenge is to wonder why we keep making these exceptions? I mean, are we really such a begger city, that we have to keep making exceptions to our planning, in order to have businesses be here? And I'm not sure we should always make those exceptions? 

And, yeah, I think that's one of the challenges that I agree with you Ashton,  that if we could up our architectural standards, it would probably help us more than hurt us. So I can see, I can see those arguments there. People are welcome to agree or disagree. 

Just out of curiosity, how many people are familiar with the general plan or have looked at it? (A few hands are raised.) Some people, The entire general plan is online, if you just Google “29 Palms general plan”, it's all there. It's not the easiest read. But each element of the general plan has a set of goals. And it's possible to just read the goals on each element and get a sense of what the general plan says. Because I do think that we're going into a period where we open up the general plan. And generally when that happens, there's quite a lot of a public feedback process that's a part of that. And it's important because it's what's going to drive our city. Other comments about affordability and sustainability?

Chris Clarke: I am aware that this is a really huge topic, and that there are so many facets to it. That it's a little bit daunting to take it on. And one of the things that I really believe firmly is that we can get to a place where we all understand what's going on with the city, and what the city has planned, what we have planned and what the city electeds with our guidance are trying to enact, but it's going to require conversations. Like I said, you got your flaming Earth Firsters in 29, you got your QAnon people in 29. Some of them are the same people. But you have people that firmly believe that we need to be building twelve story hotels in downtown and you have people that firmly believe that we need to be preserving the rural character of 29 as much as possible. And we are not going to get anywhere until we start having conversations that are really open ended, but also really well planned out and with people having the commitment to show up, even if it's exasperating. Because that's what a lot of local politics is, is just showing up, talking to the same people and getting exasperated and then eventually figuring out where you want to go.

So I'm hoping that this might be a stimulus for more of that kind of interaction between people. So that the people that really want to see 29 be a place that they would like to live, where they would like to leave to their grandkids in 30, 40, 50 years, can all agree that at least everybody else in the process is working in good faith – might have different opinions, but at least we need to know where each other stands. We need to take good ideas from all the different quarters, because everybody has good ideas. And I think maybe breaking it down a little bit more, just planning to have more, more conversations where we really dig into it and pull our hair out and raise a glass to each other when we agree. And it's just, it's going to take some work, and I'll be the first to volunteer. I'm here for it.

Groundwork Arts Director Rhonda Coleman: “ I'm very concerned, we used to also be able to entice teachers to come out here. Because we could say, Wow, well, if you're in LA, you might not be able to buy a home. But here you can buy a home, you can raise a family. And that's not possible anymore.” (Photo: Natalie Zuk)

Rhonda Coleman:  I think I'm hesitant to speak because I think what I have to say is probably known by a lot of people and it's not as much of a solution, but maybe I can just express my personal concerns. Oh, my name. My name is Rhonda Coleman. I am the director of Groundwork Arts. I help bring artists into the schools. 

I've lived here for 17 years, I have a daughter who's 13 and a son who's 15. I came here because their father was a Marine. And I thought I'd be here for two years and 17 years later, I'm still here. And the reason I'm still here is while I originally thought I was taking a sabbatical from the art world –  some of you've heard this from me before – and then realized it's one of the highest concentrations of creatives I've ever come across, either on the west coast or east coast. And it is what kept me here. And the community, for my children, is what kept me here. 

So one of my concerns, being that I'm involved in the arts, is that this used to be a place where you could come and buy a home and have a $400 mortgage. I know that's kind of crazy to even think about, but it's true. And a place to come where there's freedom of restrictions and the ability to experiment and to buy a home or have plans and that's not possible anymore for many of those people. So we then lose a variety, a diversity of people that we used to have that no longer have that opportunity. And that concerns me. 

Yeah, there was something else too. But from the education perspective, I'm very concerned, we used to also be able to entice teachers to come out here. Because we could say, Wow, well, if you're in LA, you might not be able to buy a home. But here you can buy a home, you can raise a family. And that's not possible anymore, either. Not only do we have a shortage of teachers in the state of California, and quite honestly, across the nation, we live in a rural area, and it does take a little bit of enticing initially. I mean, I've heard before you either love it or hate it. I don't know that that's true. I love it. But how do you encourage a teacher who already works a gazillion hours and makes a very small amount of money? How do we encourage them to come here and be here and stay a part of our community so that our children can get an education that they rightfully deserve? 

And the third thing I'll say is I do own an Airbnb, so I appreciate what you said about the ecosystem. When our family life changed, I was at a point where I thought I'm gonna have to go back to the city and get a museum job. How am I going to support my kids – I can't do it on this consulting basis. When I moved up the road and rented out our other home and it's what fed both my children for many years, four years to be exact. 

So I'm not against Airbnbs. 

I am for having a conversation and looking at the things that have come before in other small towns and thinking about how to make it work for all of us. And I've also experienced being a newcomer 17 years ago, and I wasn't well received by some old timers. And then over time, developed relationships with them. And I think we have a lot to learn from each other. And, and I'm sure I'm over my time, but yeah, I have lots of concerns. And I don't know what all the solutions are. But I am really concerned about education and how we think about development. I'm super interested in development in a healthy way.

Institute of Inquiry Director Kimberly Zzyzx: “ When I tell people things like our county is ranked 56 out of 58 in the state of California for how few childcare spaces we have available, no one understands the statistic – they may not have ever heard it.” (Photo: Natalie Zuk)

Kimberly Zzyzx: My name is Kimberly Zzyzyx. I'm here representing myself as an individual who also loves living here, but also as the director of the Institute of Inquiry, an organization which was supported by Rhonda Coleman and her nonprofit work in our infancy. I just wanted to continue on the topic of education. And also note that if I talk really fast, it's because it's so scary to speak to groups, y'all.

I echo Rhonda's concerns about sustainability of life here for teachers, for creative professionals and for families. I'm a hopeful future parent, but my involvement with children and families is in taking care of others at this moment. And the general feeling that I have received from everyone who lives here is that it is a “nth” level crisis that feels visible only to the people experiencing it. So when I tell people things like our county is ranked 56 out of 58 in the state of California for how few childcare spaces we have available, no one understands the statistic – they may not have ever heard it. 

Recently, a lot of the people here might be aware of the funding that was given out last year for different arts organizations like the PAAC ran Workshop 29, which was a great program. And that state funding came from an assessment called the Healthy Places index. You know, the subtext being that like, what are the most unhealthy places, but we're gonna call it something different, because that's how you get funds, right? And even their statistics about childcare spaces available here are dated. They cite 2019 data saying that 41% of three to four year olds have access and are enrolled in care. But the more recent statistic from San Bernardino’s First Five organization, their strategic plan, which is for 2023 to 28, says that's more like 6.2%. And so, knowing that in this area, we have unemployment that is 17.2% as of the 2022 census, which just for context, the national average is 11.2%. We can't ignore child care specifically, but also education opportunities in general. As an accessibility issue, you cannot go to work if you have no one to safely watch your child. 

And there the programs that do exist here that are doing work on these fronts are either struggling financially or they are making it work, but only through absolutely abysmal work hours. Groundwork Arts has done incredible things to bring artists into schools. But I know how hard Ronda works. A lot of the people I see laboring as these satellites of energy and love are working too hard.

And so when we're thinking about the whole ecosystem, I wonder what it would look like, as you said, in terms of getting funding from people who are visiting or from tourism – these are not mysterious needs. There are studies, there are strategic plans, there's the health strategic plan. What would it look like to have a partnership between the city and between some of these organizations raising money towards those goals? What would it look like to have collectives that meet periodically to identify what sort of state funding there could be? What about hosting some of the events like we do for July 4, or whatever else up to benefit a cause? 

So I don't know what those possibilities are. I know that for my organization, we're grateful to be opening up in the former Knotts Sky Park preschool buildings – the the City of 29 has been really supportive. And we're starting a new program this year called Creative Fields that will be pairing, job opportunities and support for creative professionals with teens and offering that 30 week workshop program free of charge. But those are just two little data points.

Families need more help, we need more help. And I think it's really important to look at families and the generational needs when we're talking about long term sustainability and being able to afford to live and work here. So sorry, if that went over, I can't tell…

Cindy Bernard: We probably should wrap this topic up and move on. But are there any final comments? Everybody's had great comments so far. I just want to add on top of the challenges for teachers, of course, much of our economy is built on tourism. And the people that work in the tourist economy also don't make a lot of money and I think one of the challenges that has existed throughout the Morongo Basin is where are those people going to live? Given the change that's happened in affordability and housing here? I mean, there is an affordable housing complex that's supposed to be going up near City Hall. But it's been talked about for two years, and I don't think ground has been broken yet. So it seems to be a very slow process. And I think you have done a very good job of addressing those challenges here. Anybody else? Or we'll move on to balancing development with the maintenance of our desert ecosystem. Okay. That's you, Paul. Thank you so much for the conversation on that last topic.

Next: Balancing Development With Maintenance of Our Desert Ecosystem
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